Blackjack! Wait...wrong cards.
Ever wonder what would happen if Team Sonic sat in a sealed room with the Parker Brothers around a giant hookah, reminiscent of the one used by the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and were under contract to join forces? My guess is that they would have a blast producing a wacky 4 player party game that would play like a board game, but feels like a Sonic title. They would probably throw in hordes of amusing yet nonsensical mini-games and other off-the-wall tidbits of gaming bizarreness, and finally retrofit a plot that goes a little something like this...
Apparently, our dreams are concentrated into a solid form called the Precioustone. The raw, throbbing power of the Precioustone is so great that it created a world that surrounds it: Maginaryworld.
But there's always a villain waiting to throw salt in your game, so "Void" appears to shatter the Precioustone and destroy the Maginaryworld utopia. This doesn't go over well with Lumina Flowlight, guardian fairy for Maginaryworld, and she sends out a cry for help. Who should be magically transported (involuntarily I might add) to Maginaryworld? But of course, Sonic and his pals.
Now it's up to Sonic, Knuckles, Tails and Amy to collect the pieces of the Precioustone, reassemble it and save the day.
I suppose it all makes perfect sense...if you subscribe to my hookah theory.
The game is played like most board games, but with cards in place of dice. You play a card to move spaces on the board, hopefully landing on a space that will give you rings. Your goal is to get to the Precioustone first and destroy the monster guarding it...which turns out to be a rather challenging task.
Our heroes are each given a deck of cards and must make their way around Maginaryworld (which looks suspiciously like a game board) and fight monsters while attempting to collect the pieces of the Precioustone. When you get a piece of the Precioustone, you are awarded with an emblem; the player with the most emblems at the end of the level wins. How you can save the world with just a deck of cards I'll never understand; but as it turns out, it's pretty fun trying.
It's clear from the start that everyone gets the competitive bug and is out to screw each other in any way they can. So now you have a battle amongst friends as well as trying to save the world. So much for "team" Sonic.
When you come across monsters, you battle with cards. The monster draws first, and you have to pull a higher card. This ends up leaving a lot to chance, which is the typical problem with board game style party titles.
To deal with this randomness, there are Forcejewels. The 38 Forcejewels are really helpful modifiers with a variety of effects. Some allow you to play multiple cards either while moving or during battle. Another might force an opponent to move six spaces on their next three turns, teleports all other players to random spaces on the board. The Forcejewels will quickly become your best friends, and they really heat up the competitive feel of the game.
There are also spaces on the board that take you to mini-games, each of which lasts about 30 seconds. They cover a range of game styles. In "Shadow Tag," one player is "it" and must step on the others' shadows. There's also a strange little game where one player has the others in a frying pan, and as they jump around the hot pan dropping rings, the "chef" gets to lay claim to any that fall out of the pan. The mini-games are by far some of the most original I have ever seen, and there are so many that after several hours of play, few will repeat. This keeps the game fresh each time you play, and really makes it a lot of fun because you never know what to expect.
There are also quests for each world. They are different for each stage and include some sort of heroic act, like saving a beached dolphin. The quests let you win additional emblems, so if you are a little behind, it's a good way top catch up.
There are two basic modes: Story (1 player) and Versus (1-4 players). In Story mode, one level takes around an hour or so to complete. You better be sure you have enough emblems, Forcejewels and rings at the end to win, or you have to repeat the level. I lost the first level twice, which was THREE HOURS invested. I would have smashed my controller if they weren't $30 each.
The single-player plays exactly the same as the multi-player, though it allows the bizarre plot to unfold. It gets a little boring waiting for three CPU controlled players to take their turns, and it feels a little cheap, almost like the CPU is cheating. Tails seems to have an obvious advantage when CPU controlled, as almost every situation works out in the little fox's favor.
But as a multi-player game, Sonic Shuffle is a blast. Grab a few friends and the gameplay variety will keep you glued to the set for a while.
The graphics are superb. Sonic and his pals have a cartoon look with thick black outlines and vibrant colors, similar to Jet Grind Radio. The game boards have some impressive textures as well, and the art is super clean.
Sonic Shuffle takes a little getting used to. There are so many rules, combos, mini-games and quests that it's easy to get more than a little confused. But the essence of the game is fun, and all of the variation leaves tons of room for competition. This is definitely a game to play with a group of people, and is better appreciated among friends. It's certainly worth checking out, but only for social gamers.